My Biases Against Colonialism
When you Google colonialism, what pops up? Lots of images of Africa subdivided by European flags, British soldiers marching, political cartoons of a starving darker villager bowing in front of a smiling white “progressive.”
That’s the colonialism we’re mostly familiar with – imperial colonialism inspired by the virtues of exploration (or contagion?) and trade (or exploitation?) and strategic expansion (or military dominance?). Though I obviously have a bias against this historical and political reality, it’s for someone much better-versed and closely impacted than me to rail against.
There’s another form of colonialism that deserves a well written paragraph that won’t have anything to do with my actual blog topic: religious colonialism. Though religious conversion largely accompanied political expansion, it persevered well after the traditional territorial expansion became a theme of a prior global age (hostile efforts for expansion recently, from Hitler’s 3rd Reich to ISIS, are generally condemned and will probably be historically separated from the GLORIOUS expansion of Europeans into Native American territory…). With that said, religious conversion is somewhat a requirement of most religions. At its core philosophy, I can dig it. If you believe wholeheartedly in something that gives your life meaning and brings peace to you and yours, you theoretically SHOULD want to spread that wonderful message to others. At the same time, you’re assuming that every person in the world has the same mental and spiritual makeup, that one message is appropriate for everyone. That expectation seems a little far-fetched.
I’m an immigrant Indian man who moved to Suburbia, America, when I was 7. You better believe I have been approached for conversion. And you better believe I’ve harbored, at best, a detached headshakingness (and at worst a deep-set resentment), toward people coming into my life without exploring my reality and perspective and culture and assuming they have the answers to my “spiritual malaise” (not to be confused with spiritual Mayonnaise).
Meanwhile, in Education…
So – I have studied political colonialism. I have been the subject of religious colonialism. And I have been the culprit of educational colonialism.
Now we get to the point. “Colonialism is…power extending control over a weaker peoples or areas.” First of all, that definition already makes me uneasy, as it hints at a standard variation in the innate power between groups of people. Furthermore, if we observe the connotation of colonialism in a non-imperial sense, it’s easy to see signs everywhere in the education space. School takeover attempts without any community buy-in or support. Charter schools expanding to new geographies without adapting their models. The “decision-makers” (who generally don’t look like or come from the same backgrounds of the people who are most-affected) setting the direction for a community without looking at the long-term impact and implications of their decisions. Consultants painting broad strokes over the community and failing to connect with those most affected by their work (I’m a former consultant…trust me on that one).
In the private, for-profit sector, companies spend millions of dollars doing market research and identifying the correct localized strategy to sell products or services. The profit motive seems to be working, as companies recognize that, to be truly successful, they need to engage with a cultural or geographical community to understand how best they can serve them (sodas). Simple enough, right? Figure out what success is in this community; adapt my practices to generate success. There’s a reason Frito-Lay has ketchup-flavored chips in India and sour cream and onion ones in the States (yes, my fellow Americans, others around the world react to “sour cream and onion” the same way you probably reacted to “ketchup-flavored chips”).
Let’s define success in education as…sustainable systems and structures that consistently help students uncover their high intellectual capacity and develop strengths to navigate life after school. If I assume that educators want success for our children, are we really taking the necessary steps to get there? Are we doing the market research? Are we digging deep enough to the roots of the systems to figure out what success has to be predicated upon for those specific students and families? Or are we content with repeating history, doing enough to make the news, and planting seeds that will wash away at the next flood? Further analysis leads me to a decision point: either my assumption is wrong, and educators don’t truly want our kids…all of our kids…to succeed (ulterior motives), or we have yet to accept that our historical strategies were inherently flawed (poor strategic assumptions). The first one indicates we have a little soul-searching and verification; the second one means we need to spend a little more time doing root cause analysis. (As for the first one – I think more of us fit here than we are willing to admit. It’s not that we might be bad people for not wanting all children to succeed, but there may just be other factors that we care about, and we have subconsciously decided to go after those factors instead of making the TREMENDOUS emotional and physical sacrifices required to provide an equitable upbringing to children).
I previously wrote a little bit about what I think the correct strategy is. It takes true engagement with community forces and infrastructure already in place. It takes a collaborative effort from strategic planners, driven service providers, supportive funders, and responsible policy-makers. But beyond the strategy, it requires a commitment to the value of humility. It requires the woman with 20 years of teaching experience to step back and be open to new ways of doing things, if they really are more effective. It requires the Ivy League MBA to drop the false pretense that she or he is smarter than others because of the degree and jump into the trenches of the work with an open mind. It requires supporters to trust (but verify) a solution that comes from within the very population or geography that they are trying to support, just like they’d trust a powerful consulting organization with a strong brand. It requires all of us to drop our savior complex and serve people because…it’s just the right thing to do. And that’s why we must do it.
I’m Responsible for Myself
I mentioned above that I have been the culprit of educational colonialism. I don’t think I go into a project or an organization with an overtly colonial attitude; my general predilection is pretty anti-savior-complex. But it’s precisely when I don’t pay attention to my ego that it rears its ugly face. It flares up in the most interesting, and seemingly innocent, ways…like when I bring books that I loved when I was a kid, like James and the Giant Peach, and my 2nd-grade friend (through a local learn-to-read initiative) doesn’t want to read them and would rather read about Lego, and I get disappointed that he’s not going to learn about the wonderful world of Roald Dahl from me; when I enter a meeting with early education teachers and tell them that the graphs I created are going to help them improve their students’ scores (I haven’t made that mistake twice); when I don’t actively create space for my local colleagues ideas’ in a strategic planning session. These are relatively small mistakes – and I correct my action or my attitude immediately. But the fact that they still bubble up means there is a source within me that is manufacturing this perspective. And until that colonialism stops bubbling up, I will err on the side of being over-corrective and harsh on myself.
Look – I’m never going to look like or “be” like the kids I intend to serve. Even if I, for some misguided reason, quit my job and moved into the projects and started “living that life,” I would always have my education, family, background, etc. to differentiate myself from someone born into those circumstances through no choice of their own. (I really did once want to do this, albeit in Mumbai – then I reflected on the perverse voyeurism of slum tourism and slapped myself and moved forward with my life).
Anyways – because I’m never going to be an organic part of the communities I want to work with, I’m always going to be an outsider. I will do my darndest to win trust and gain buy-in, but there will always be a barrier. So, the most responsible thing I can do, starting yesterday, is observe my motives and reflect on how my actions are carried out and perceived. Am I doing my best to stem the flow of savior-complex-colonial thoughts? Am I letting my ego drive the work forward, or am I humbly offering my strengths, perspective, and services to a community to use in their success plan? Am I dominating the conversation, or am I facilitating it and creating space for the real, sustainable solution to present itself? What’s really my role here? Because honestly, this work is hard enough even when you have the right intentions.
**Speaking of creating space, my friend and colleague, Alec Brownridge, produces a tremendous podcast in which he gives space for people to share their stories, perspectives, and musings. I had the opportunity to talk about colonialism in education, planting sustainable roots for progress, and how my personal philosophies impact my work, on a recent episode. Check out Talk Story and make sure you subscribe!**